Vientiane Times, 10 Jan 2015
The government is proceeding in good faith and fully expects a positive and productive outcome from the Mekong River Commission’s (MRC) prior consultation process for the Don Sahong hydropower project in Champassak province, according to a senior official.
The MRC will meet in Hanoi, Vietnam, next week as the formal six-month consultation process draws to a close.
Deputy Minister of Energy and Mines Mr Viraphonh Viravong told the Vientiane Times this week about the progress of the Don Sahong consultation set to end on January 25.
“It is the Lao government’s practice to engage expert consultants from around the world to study, design and build technologically advanced and sustainable hydropower plants,” Mr Viraphonh said. “Information and data collected are made available to stakeholders in a manner far more transparent than what is being done on similar projects across the region.”
In the case of Don Sahong in the far south of the country, Laos has had the project area under study and review since 2006, he said. More than two dozen technical and engineering studies, environmental and social impact studies and fisheries studies have been shared with stakeholders and posted on the Don Sahong web site: www.dshpp.com.
“Over the years, government and project specialists have met regularly with villagers and learnt from their local knowledge. They are well aware of the changes that have occurred to dry-season water levels and the reasons for the decline of the once-abundant fishery.”
As stated in the 1995 Mekong Agreement, the purpose of the Prior Consultation (PC) process is to determine whether the proposed water use will have significant impacts on the Lower Mekong Basin, and if so, how to minimise or mitigate them.
“The PC process is a means for the proposing country to hear out and respond to the concerns of the other Member Countries. It does not empower the Member Countries to arbitrarily delay, or veto, a project that is within the sovereign rights of the proposing country to develop. In effect, it calls on the four riparian neighbours (Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam) to be realistic and practical in pursuit of sustainable development of the Mekong River Basin.”
A similar Prior Consultation procedure was carried out for the Xayaboury Hydropower Project in northern Laos. The Xayaboury PC gave experts a chance to raise issues, including concerns beyond the potential impacts on flow and water quality. The highly effective consultation for Xayaboury prompted a more careful assessment of possible impacts, a review of measures to avoid, mitigate and minimise these impacts, and ultimately the redesign of the project. In the end, changes to the initial project design addressed potential impacts on the sediment flux, fisheries potential, fish migration and passage, and navigation.
At the regional public consultation meeting held in Pakxe district, Champassak province, on December 12, 2014, the MRC’s expert groups reported that operation of the Don Sahong run-of-river scheme would have no significant trans-boundary impacts with regard to water quality and ecosystems, hydrology, sediment balance or freedom of navigation.
“Laos has maintained all along that fish migration across the Khone Falls is the only serious environmental concern. The MRC’s Fish Passage and Fisheries Expert Group has raised legitimate concerns, and these are being addressed,” the deputy minister said.
“The Lao government is convinced that natural channels can be modified to accommodate year-round fish passage up and downstream, and that the amount of fish produced in the Khone Falls area can actually increase with better management of the fishery, effective conservation measures and fish breeding.”
“In pursuing sustainable development at Don Sahong, we have been open and frank. Unfortunately, environmental activists have spread mistruths about the project that have raised fears in downstream communities. Anti-dam campaigns choose to ignore the fact that a run-of-river dam has no impact on river water and the flow of water can provide a reliable source of renewable energy that produces no air pollution or toxic by-products.
“Sadly, leading NGOs have publicly announced they are boycotting the PC process. This head-in-the-sand strategy reveals their utter self-interest and disregard for the people of the region.
“While we have given all the data available, some will say there still exists information gaps. They should know by now that we are committed to developing this project in the most environmentally friendly and sustainable manner for the benefit of the Lao people. What’s more, our approach is adaptive,” Mr Viraphonh said.
The people of the region want the project to move ahead, he added. “They want new economic opportunities and training in vocations like driving trucks and heavy equipment, auto repair and carpentry. They want more tourists to visit the area by car and bus to see the future of Laos, not the past.”